New Rep Explores Good and Evil With Compelling ‘Imagining Madoff’ (5 Stars)

‘Imagining Madoff’ – Written by Deborah Margolin; Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Designer Jon Savage; Costume Designer Leonard Choo; Presented by The New Repertory Theatre at the Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through January 26th.

Does the Devil have a soul?

That appears to be the question being asked in this absorbing production of “Imagining Madoff” now playing at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Whether or not you consider Madoff to be a demon is not important, but as we see in Jeremiah Kissel’s stark portrayal of history’s most prolific swindler, his motivations certainly seem to run much deeper than simple greed. This three person play gives us a fictionalized version of Madoff’s character, as told through his interactions with Solomon Galkin (Joel Colodner), an eighty year old Holocaust survivor, poet, treasurer of his synagogue and the moral compass of the story (and a character based on Jewish activist and author Elie Weisel – whose philanthropic foundation Madoff defrauded of $15 million), and monologues from A Secretary, who appears to be speaking to a grand jury throughout most of the play. Madoff additionally delivers lines to an unseen biographer, and that is where some of the most telling material is found.
Kissel establishes the content of Madoff’s character early on in one such conversation with the biographer, comparing the human race to spawning salmon as he mimes the process of reaching into a stream, grabbing a fish, and then maniacally spewing – with wild eyes and spittle nearly coming from his mouth – this gem: “He’s flapping, it takes him time to realize it’s over – oh it’s all over – he’s never going to make it…He’s dead, dead – and oh he’s delicious – and he’s dead… And I’m wiping my mouth.” The demented joy that he feels as he’s describing his actions is nearly as frightening as any murder scene could be on stage because it has the feel of evil incarnate, of a man who craves the suffering of others. Kissel’s portrayal of the Madoff character is amazing. He never relaxes and his face seems to physically twitch like a crack addict (or at least an overly caffeinated car salesman). He is so grossly uncomfortable in his skin as he manically rattles off his observations about life and people, and there seems to be no real human connection in his thoughts, at least during his monologues.

But it is through the interaction with the spiritual Galkin that Madoff becomes humanized, however slightly. As a Holocaust survivor still prone to guilt about how he was able to survive the death camps both mentally and physically, Galkin still finds meaning in his life, through his study of the Torah and the Midrash (the interpretation of the Torah’s text) and his work with others through the synagogue. When Madoff expresses an almost clinical admiration of him, he describes how he came to his spiritual life by simply saying, “I’m just a man who saw what hell is.”  Colodner is thoroughly convincing in this complicated role, and really brings the conflicting sides of trying to live a spiritual life in a human body together. Galkin believes Madoff is also a righteous man, and he speaks to him as one, unaware that he’s probably casting seeds on some fairly rocky and barren ground. He also continually implores Madoff to take him on as a personal client, and Madoff’s hesitation to do so makes us hopeful that there may be a speck of decency in his being. The two speak in Galkin’s study late into the night, and the audience is left to wonder what may have been.

A Secretary (Adrianne Krstansky) also colors the nature of the Madoff character through her monologues, and she reveals telling aspects of his personality to the audience in conversational asides, such as, “I never saw him go to the bathroom. Not once.” Krstansky shines in this role through her realistic conveyance of how an ordinary person gets caught up in extraordinary events. And she is rightfully nervous in answering the questions of the grand jury as she unconsciously contemplates her own role in the scheme.

The author also gives us a chance to realize that what Madoff did to his clients – he defrauded many individuals of their life savings and retirement money and caused a number of charitable organizations to either fold or grossly reduce operations – pales in comparison to what was done to the Jews during the Holocaust, and that is not lost in this production.  But it is the sociopathic deception that fascinates so many about this man/monster and “Imagining Madoff” gives us a plausible glimpse into how his mind works.

The confined space of the Black Box Theater is the ideal stage for this production and scenic designer Choo has crafted an imaginative but simple set, creating an archway of books leading from Galkin’s cluttered study across the stage to what appears to be Madoff’s cell. This is a really solid production, without a false moment, and I heartily recommend it. For more info, go to: